A president’s character is always a political issue. Arguments about it are part of the political conversation, and views on it influence voters’ behavior. During the Donald Trump presidency, though, the issue has become omnipresent. Widespread objections to Trump personally seem to be why his job approval has been stuck in the low 40s even with a strong economy and relative peace. A high proportion of the commentary about public affairs over the last few years — both on the op-ed pages of elite newspapers and in your friends’ social-media posts — has concerned his character, and secondarily the character of his friends and foes.
The debate over Trump’s character has divided Americans into three camps. In polls, a small majority of the public consistently disapproves of Trump’s job performance and his character. A large minority approves of both. And a small group approves of the job Trump is doing but thinks he lacks honesty, compassion, and values similar to theirs.
The conservatives and moderate conservatives in the second two groups generally say that Trump’s policies and their effects matter more than any character flaws he may have — he may be a boor on Twitter, but unemployment is low and the courts are increasingly conservative. They say as well that his distinctive personality traits have sometimes redounded to the country’s benefit.
These arguments have some force. The effects of Trump’s policies ought to weigh heavily in any assessment of him, and a lot has gone right for the country during his time in office so far. But Trump’s flaws are having negative real-world effects, too, and in recent weeks they have been coming to the fore.
Conservatives say admiringly that “nobody but Trump would have done that” about several of his decisions. Another Republican president would have wilted under the pressure and withdrawn Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, they say. Trump hung tough. Any other Republican would have stayed in the Iran deal and the climate accord and kept our embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv. Trump’s indifference to conventional wisdom, bureaucratic desires, and press criticism made him a champion of conservative objectives in all three cases. Nobody else, supporters often say, would have been willing to play hardball on trade with China.
These claims vary in their persuasiveness. The case is strongest when it comes to the most symbolic decisions. Other Republican presidents probably would have stayed in the climate accord and Tel Aviv on the theory that the practical gains weren’t worth the political and diplomatic hassle. (The climate accord did not bind the U.S. to any particular policies.)
Doubtless some Republicans were counseling that Kavanaugh be abandoned. Other presidents surely would not have fought for Kavanaugh by criticizing his principal accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, at a rally, as Trump did. On the other hand, Kavanaugh was a George W. Bush administration insider, and the deciding vote ended up being cast by Senator Susan Collins after she consulted with the former president. (In the last 100 years, the only times Republican presidents have withdrawn their Supreme Court nominees have been when the criticism came from the right.) Swing senators who ended up voting for Kavanaugh rebuked the president for his remarks about Ford.
With respect to Iran, we’re going to have to wait to see what Trump’s approach accomplishes. The administration has been divided on how hard to press for a new deal, and what form it would take. Tariffs on China have not yet produced implemented concessions from that country, either. The pre-Trump bipartisan strategy of using the Trans-Pacific Partnership to encircle China might have proven more successful.
Looking to the other side of the ledger, some of Trump’s conservative critics fault him for whiffing on Obamacare repeal. But this charge seems unfair. Trump’s inability to make the case for Republican legislation, his undercutting of it as too stingy, and his unpopularity did not help the cause, but the odds would have been against success regardless. It wasn’t Trump’s fault that Republicans had spent years bashing Obamacare without reaching a consensus about what should replace it.
But other criticisms are just. Previous administrations had considered implementing a zero-tolerance policy for people who cross the border illegally. They rejected it in large part because it would, in combination with extant court orders, cause the separation of many children from their parents. The Trump administration went forward with it, and compounded the damage from it by implementing the idea with little planning or coordination. It was a political, and continues to be a humanitarian, disaster. Reckless, thoughtless, and callous, it was a policy that belongs in the category of things only Trump would have done.
The same is true of the withdrawal of troops from a portion of Syria where their presence protected our Kurdish allies from Turkish attacks. Since Trump made the decision, a few people have gamely ventured forth to defend it — but not even they thought it was so good an idea as to have advocated it beforehand. Some of the after-the-fact rationalizations dwelt on the failure of Trump’s aides to undertake, in an orderly way, the wind-down of American forces in the Mideast that he has sometimes suggested he wants.
But this defense doubles as an indictment. In past administrations, it has been taken for granted that the president would be able to form a relatively consistent will and transmit it down the chain of command, partly through appointees selected for their ability and willingness to cooperate in the task.
Trump differs from most of his predecessors on each of these dimensions. He hires people who are not aligned with him, to the extent he has a considered view of a subject at all. (See, for instance, John Bolton and James Mattis.) He careens from position to position (we’re leaving the Middle East, and waiting for a Saudi go-ahead to attack Iran). He inspires in his aides neither the respect nor the fear that might move them to follow through on his desires. When Trump comes out for sweeping gun control, or an increase in immigration to the highest levels ever, his aides just ignore him. It is true that no administration, and especially no Republican administration, speaks with one voice and acts with one purpose. Compared with most administrations, though, this one has always been in a state of disintegration.
Trump’s relationship with his political allies is nearly as dysfunctional as that with his aides. Republican senators are more sympathetic to Trump than press coverage would sometimes suggest. A lot of them genuinely think the House Democrats have been treating him unfairly over the Ukraine controversy, for example. But few of them are willing to defend the substance of his conduct, because they do not trust him to tell the truth, or even stick to one story. President Trump is reportedly upset at how many of them are making mild criticisms of his July phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky or staying silent about the matter. It is a consequence of the reputation he has earned with his colleagues.
Senate Republicans are increasingly worried that another possible consequence of Trump’s character traits will be electoral defeats for their party. The geography of the seats that were up in 2018 was the most favorable for Republicans since the beginning of direct elections for the chamber, and they picked up two. But the playing field in 2020 is more even, and the results in the House in 2018 — when Republicans were swamped in districts that had previously been blue, purple, or even light red — provide reasons for worry. Trump should not take all the blame for those losses. American voters have tended for more than 40 years to reject one-party control of the government. But Trump’s unpopularity surely made the losses worse.
David Von Drehle had a recent column in the Washington Post with the headline “Trump without the Trumpiness Would Win Reelection in a Landslide.” There is plenty of evidence for that view. But it is still possible, even if the odds are against it, that Trump will win big with all his Trumpiness. And there is another complication too. Some of his supporters obviously relish the same personal qualities that turn most voters off. They thrill when he insults his enemies, who were often already theirs as well. The phenomenon has been widely noted.
Some of the people who had grave reservations about Trump’s character but voted for him last time remain clear-eyed about his virtues and vices. Others have naturally felt an urge to justify their choice to themselves and to others: to minimize his faults, to look away from them, to grow resentful of those who keep dwelling on them. And so those very faults have helped to cement his support. Would his die-hards defend him so passionately if there were less that had to be defended? Or would they, perhaps, notice how beneath all the tumult and noise around the White House, not much about American government is changing?